The Funhouse Review
Tobe Hooper is one of those filmmakers whose entire career is overshadowed by a brilliant debut film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the cornerstones of the modern horror genre and would be difficult for anyone to top, but Hooper has declined so drastically that there is now little trace of the brilliance of his debut in films such as Mortuary. However, his precipitous decline should not make us ignore some of the work he did on the way - the blackly funny Eaten Alive, the excellent TV movie adaptation of Salem's Lot and the compromised but often surpisingly visceral Poltergeist. Most of all, we shouldn't forget about The Funhouse.
Although it's not much more than a very efficient horror thriller, The Funhouse is so well made in every department that it deserves to be considered a minor classic. The set-up is quite deliciously simple. A group of teenagers visit a local carnival and find themselves trapped inside the Funhouse where they witness the murder of the fortune teller by a strange creature in a Frankenstein mask. Inadvertently giving away their presence, they are chased through the labyrinthine corridors never knowing whether the next terror they face will be fake or real.
The elegance of the narrative hook lies in the intrinsic otherness of the carnival setting where the everyday and the outlandish sit side by side, creating a world which isn't quite rational. The pre-fabricated awnings, the colours and music and the bizarre people seem to have all found their way from a slightly different place. This is emphasised once inside the funhouse, where reality takes a back seat and we are cast into a world which plays by its own rules. Hooper plays upon this mercilessly, working with DP Andrew Laszlo and production designer Mort Rabinowitz to deliberately disorientate us with lurid colours and distorted camera angles. Initially, the film also seems to be pitting the 'normal' teenagers against the 'abnormal' carnival world but this is challenged during the second half of the film when we're asked, albeit in very broad-brushed terms, to consider exactly what normality is. Once the nature of the killer is revealed, he's allowed to be sad as well as scary in the classic tradition of movie monsters.
As he demonstrated in his brilliant debut film, Tobe Hooper is very accomplished at intense set-pieces of fear, and the second half of The Funhouse is basically a string of effective set-pieces. The murder of the fortune teller, seen from two different perspectives, is highly effective, not least because of Sylvia Miles' lovely cameo performance and the body language of Wayne Doba as her mute, masked killer. From then on, it's a headlong chase interspersed with well staged death scenes until the finale in the machine room with the 'Final Girl' which contains a nice little nod to Texas Chainsaw.
This was Hooper's first studio film - it was made for Universal - and although he's showing that he can be a good boy by keeping the blood and gore to a minimum, he still manages to include some transgressive elements, particularly in the aforementioned scene with the fortune teller. But he makes the most of a more generous budget and does excellent work with the teenage cast and with strong veteran actors like Sylvia Miles, an unhinged William Finlay and the great Kevin Conway - the latter popping up in three different guises and proving much more monstrous than anyone else in the film. Speaking of monsters, one should, of course, credit Rick Baker and Craig Reardon for their effects work which is most striking if it hasn't been spoiled in advance.
The Funhouse has been released before on DVD but Arrow have come up with a rather lovely package for its debut on Blu Ray. Although I haven't seen the finished packaging, it includes the usual booklet, reversible sleeve and fold-out poster.
After some problems with the Blu Ray transfers of high-profile titles such as Tenebrae, it's good to see Arrow bouncing back with an excellent transfer of The Funhouse. Although it's not a great advance on their 2007 DVD release, it's a faithful account of how the film should look. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is respected and there's a fair degree of appropriate grain. The all-important colours are exceptional throughout with the primary reds and blues given suitable prominence. I couldn't see any issues with print damage. As for the level of detail, it's generally very pleasing although the image was never pin-sharp to begin with. On the whole, I can't see anything here to complain about and it would be good if Arrow would regard this as a model for their future transfers.
The DTS stereo soundtrack is equally impressive. If you've ever seen the film projected in a cinema, you will know that the surround sound kicks in once the kids get inside the funhouse and this effect is brilliantly replicated here. It needs to be played loud for the best effect and the carefully placed use of sound effects comes across very well. The music by John Beal is quite prominent in the mix, crashing in to often scary effect. Dialogue is clear throughout.
There are numerous extras included on the disc. First up, we get three commentary tracks. Craig Reardon and Jeffrey Reddick talk about the special effects in an informative and engaging manner while producer Derek Power and Howard Berger discuss the making of the film and where it is placed in Hooper's career. But the best of the three is a chat between Calum Waddell and Justin Kerswell. I have to declare an interest here since Justin is a friend of mine so I won't say too much except that I continue to admire his encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher genre and his ability to discuss it in an eloquent and entertaining manner. Calum Waddell matches this and the chat between the two is compelling, going over the slasher genre groundwork with admirable thoroughness.
Added to these three tracks are a selection of featurettes. Carnage at the Carnival is an interview with Tobe Hooper which covers the genesis and making of the film. Miles of Mayhem introduces us to Miles Chapin who has happy memories of the film and isn't remotely embarrassed about it - sadly, Elizabeth Berridge seems to want to forget she ever made it. The Makeup Madness of Craig Reardon is exactly what it sounds like; a chat with the make-up designer who also worked on Poltergeist and has gone on to a distinguished career in films and TV. Some good archive photos here and entertaining memories of working with Hooper on Eaten Alive. An interview with an enthusiastic Mick Garris appears under the headline Masterclass of Horror and, finally, we get twenty minutes of 2004 Q&A session with Hooper after a screening of The Toolbox Murders. There are apologies before this last item for the image and sound quality but it's perfectly possible to hear everything that is said. My only complaiint about these featurettes is that the excellent content is preceded by some very long title sequences created by the production company. These are ingenious and sometimes witty but they do go on an awfully long time.
Backing up the commentaries and featurettes are the original trailer and a generous collection of photos, many of them from the make-up sessions.
Arrow's release of The Funhouse is HD gives an underrated film a well deserved spruce-up. Picture and sound quality are well up to par and the extras are comprehensive and interesting. Definitely recommended.